"Earwig and the Witch" Is Ghibli at their Most Uninspired

Title: Earwig and the Witch
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Studio: Studio Ghibli
Genre(s): Comedy
Rated: PG (For some scary images and rude material)

Goro Miyazaki is a director whose work I largely dislike, yet the man himself I admire. I understand that though he is the son of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, he is not his father. This is ok. I have no problems with the son following a different path from his father before him. Goro did not grow up in the film industry with the intention of becoming a famous film director. He was a landscaper who one day did storyboards for a film Studio Ghibli was working on, and the rest is history. He does not have the natural storytelling abilities of his father nor is he a master animator. He does have unique qualities that his father does not have though. He is the only director at the studio who seems interested in making fully computer animated movies, and he did bring the studio fully into the realm of television with “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter,” and here he is taking the studio to new frontiers with a made-for-TV movie that is fully CGI instead of the studio’s trademark 2D animation. 

While some would moan that this is the end of an era for Studio Ghibli, I simply see it as a director experimenting with a new look and the studio having the courage to give him the ability to do it. That it goes primarily to streaming services and TV stations in Japan follows another Ghibli tradition of using television as a means to give new talent a chance to shine and/or use the medium as a way to test new techniques for them. The result in this case is “Earwig and the Witch,” which was originally going to have a theatrical push in America (even more of one than in Japan), but is primarily going to be seen on HBO Max because of Covid-19. After watching the film, I feel HBO Max is a good place for it, as the film feels like an hour-long TV special, with CGI that is limited and stiff and a story that in no way feels good enough to warrant paying for. In fact (dare I say) the film is the worst Studio Ghibli film I’ve seen since “Tales from Earthsea” (which was ALSO directed by Goro Miyazaki I’m sorry to say).

The story revolves around a young girl named Earwig, who is abandoned at an orphanage when she is just a baby by her mother. The mother appears to be running from some evil men and leaves her on the steps with a note saying that Earwig is the daughter of a witch and is being left behind because her mother is being chased by twelve witches, and she needs to…avoid them or something. Honestly, it was a great opening that suggested there would-be mystery, drama, and lots of magical fun to be had. Sadly, the film becomes mind-numbingly tedious shortly afterwards, as Earwig grows into a confident 10-year-old girl who has run of the orphanage as the longest child there, whom everyone loves and respects. That all changes one day when a witch and a Mandrake (which also seems to double as the creature’s name) come to the orphanage and adopts her out of nowhere. From this point on the movie hee’s and haws, stalls and stumbles, and basically does everything but move the story forward for more than an hour.

The witch informs Earwig that she is there to merely be a “second pair of hands,” and orders the girl to do all the boring, debasing chores she doesn’t want to do. Mandrake himself tends to keep himself locked in his room playing music, only coming out to eat breakfast (which he usually complains about). There is a black cat named Thomas, who is cool because…well, because he’s a black cat, and black cats are always cool! Outside of this though, the film ends up getting stuck in a loop where Earwig wants to learn to be a witch, the witch refuses to teach her, the Mandrake wants to be left alone, and the cat is an innocent bystander who fears the worst (even when he helps Earwig in her revenge schemes). Frankly, I watched most of the film wondering if there was a point to anything I was watching. Come to think of it, this is also how I felt watching “Tales from Earthsea,” where I kept waiting for a promised journey to begin that never actually happened.

Ironically, in the last fifteen minutes things started to happen to suggest that there might be something to this whole affair, yet the film ends not only as it just starts to get interesting, but on what I would argue is a massive cliffhanger. When the credits rolled my wife and I looked at each other disappointed beyond belief. The movie had been a pointless, boring affair for more than an hour only to end as things were getting interesting? How much worse of a viewing experience could you have with a film? And yet…as I reflect upon the movie and the history of its production, I think I understand why the end result turned out the way it did: To put it bluntly, “Earwig and the Witch” was made to be more of a tech demo than an actual movie. It was made primarily to see what a fully CGI Studio Ghibli film would look like, and whether or not it would successfully work. In this area “Earwig and the Witch” also falters, as none of the visual strengths CGI has to offer are used, and most of the animation looks blocky and stiff compared to the studios hand drawn stuff.

What makes things even worse is since the designs are modeled so closely after the studio’s other animated films, we could easily imagine it looking much better as a 2D film while we watch it (and then – just to add MORE insult to injury – hand-drawn storyboards are displayed during the credits, confirming how much better this would have looked in 2D). Let’s make something very clear though: The films poor animation is NOT the reason this is bad! No, the reason this is bad is because movie gives you a story that doesn’t value your time and wastes precious minutes on your life on poor visual gags that are neither funny nor progress anything. This is the perfect kind of movie for TV, where you sit and watch it because you’ve got nothing better to do at the moment, but how many of those experiences do you look back on fondly? Had this been released as a mainstream theatrical release (Fathom Events did do a special one-night presentation) I think I would have been far, FAR angrier at the results! But as something you can stream for pennies on the dollar…well, you can sit back and appreciate it for what it is: A tech demo that we actually get to view. 

From my point of view, “Earwig and the Witch” is not worth your time. If you want to see how Studio Ghibli’s iconic animation works in motion, watching fifteen minutes of it will be enough to give you a good idea of how. It seems unlikely to make too many ‘Best of’ lists on YouTube videos. Yet despite how much I dislike the final product, I can’t help but admire the fact that Goro Miyazaki is once more doing things that are outside the box for Studio Ghibli. So the CGI thing didn’t work this time? Who says it won’t work next time?! “Toy Story” has a rough-around-the-edges look to it, yet look at the quality work Pixar is doing now! I have no choice but to give a hard pass to “Earwig and the Witch,” but I am intrigued about where the studio goes from here now that they’ve done something completely different visually.

Parents, there is nothing objectional to be found.  Recommended for all ages.